Kayaking has become one of my favorite outdoorsy activities. Yes I still hike all over the place – stay tuned for an upcoming blog about the Norfolk Coast Path – but hey, a guy needs upper-body exercise too! So, for my November Shetland trip, I had contacted Seakayak Shetland, a promising-looking outdoor adventure operator. And they scored!
All in the family
Seakayak Shetland is a small local family business, run by Angus and Wendy Nicol. Wendy is “Shore Support”, occasionally joining a tour, and hubby Angus is the wave-thumping kayak king. Oftentimes, two additional family members come along to guide and assist: daughters Rosalind and Catriona. For the Americans: that’s pronounced “Ca-tree-na”, kinda like “Hermione” is pronounced “Her-my-nee”…
And last but not least, long-time family friend and kayak master Gerald Urquhart will gladly join in and show us how it’s done. Between them, Seakayak Shetland provides plenty of guidance and – important in Shetland’s ever- and fast-changing weather – makes you feel safe. And they all take pictures too!
Seakayak Shetland’s seasonal suggestion
When I contacted Seakayak Shetland months in advance, Wendy emailed me back that alas, I couldn’t book anything in advance. The scheduled outings season for almost everything in Shetland is way over in November.
However, she said they’d launch spur-of-the-moment trips if and when the weather looked cooperative for a bit. She suggested we touch base upon my arrival, to see if there was any chance during my week there. And woo hoo, I got lucky!
Call out of the blue
Early November, I arrived on the ferry from Aberdeen (see my ferry blog). I was excited about Shetland but anxious about kayaking, as I had not heard anything. Then, Mr. Blue Sky took pity on me! About an hour after I arrived, an email from Wendy: “Angus is taking some folks out today: wanna join?” They were going to do a run – in about 2 hours!
I responded right away that yes please, I’m stoked, awesome, thank you, tell me where and when and I’ll be there! Wendy replied with that info, including directions. I threw my stuff in my rental apartment, grabbed my gear and headed out.
Where in the World is Wendy?
Seakayak Shetland is located just about 5 miles north of Lerwick, in the Scandinavian-sounding Frakkafield. Driving up from Lerwick, my “Base Camp” for the week, you can’t miss the turn-off: there’s kayaks in them thar hills! You’ll see one or two trailers loaded with kayaks parked on the right hand (north) side.
Take the road down, only a mile or so, and you’re at Seakayak Shetland Worldwide HQ, also known as the Nicol family home!
Be like a scout: prepared!
Shetland can be unforgiving, especially in the off-season. The weather can turn in minutes – as we were about to find out! Proper equipment and preparation are essential. Seakayak Shetland provides waterproof jackets and pants, life vests, hats, gloves and booties, no worries, and of course quality boats and paddles.
We got a little convoy
Here’s how they do transport for a one-way kayak trip. We drove our own cars in a little convoy to the end access point near Scalloway, following Angus and Wendy’s truck with their kayak trailer. Quiet roads too, peaceful driving, no need to put the hammer down, never mind there were no smokies anywhere nor a bear in the air, just a breaker breaker in the sea!
After parking our cars there, we boarded the truck and headed for the entry access point at Papil. Once there, Wendy, in her “Shore Support” role, helped us with the outfitting. Properly decked out, we carried our kayaks to the water and put in. Wendy left us in the capable hands of Angus and Gerald, and would meet us again later at the end point where our own cars were.
Seakayak Shetland welcomes all
By now you might ask: can anyone do this? And the answer is: yes! While it’s good to have some kayaking experience, it is not required, as long as you’re reasonably fit. A run like todays will be about 3 hours actual paddling time. You don’t even have to know how to swim, it that’s an issue. Seakayak Shetland provides life vests and with their guide-to-guest ratio, someone will be near you at all times.
It’s a small group after all
Small groups are the name of the game at Seakayak Shetland and today, it was just a German couple and me, with Angus and Gerald as guides – going out for their own fun as much as for guiding us, me thinks!
The kayaks were single seat 17 footers, proper sea kayaks indeed, complete with spray skirt over the cockpit coaming. These would come in handy later! Angus led the way, and Gerald circled the team, keeping an eye on all. We had varying levels of skill, so this was once again a wise and comforting safety measure.
Underway from Papil to Scalloway
So where is this Papil, where we put in? It’s small settlement on the island of West Burra, only some 10 miles from Frakkafield.. West and East Burra plus Trondra and some smaller islands are known as the Scalloway Islands. They’re on the west side of Mainland, and you won’t need a ferry, as they’re connected via bridges.
Leaving no stone unturned
West Burra is Shetland’s 11th-largest island, and the home of the “Papil Stone”, one of Shetland’s intriguing ancient carved stones. The Stone is on display in the National Museum in Edinburgh, while a copy was placed in the original spot in Papil.
After launching, we paddled up north in the waters in between West and East Burra.
East west, what is best?
If you think, well, paddling between islands isn’t really like the open sea on the west side: correct! And a good thing that was too: we had plenty to deal with here, with tides and winds. I went back the next day to take a look at that westside open sea: even Angus and Gerald would stay away from that.
I could hardly open my car door with the raging winds, and getting back inside without that door slamming my leg off was tricky!
East and west, Burra is also quite fertile and there were some cute PONIES grazing along the side of the road.
We halted at several spots, floating closer together, and Angus and Gerald would tell us stories about the history, things that happened, and what to look for next. There were bridges to glide under, with crab pots and fishing nets. Along the shore, we saw ruins and shipwrecks.
We also paddled by a large mussels farm, inactive in November. Gerald ran it like an obstacle course, ducking under the wires, doing some nifty zigging and zagging. I gave it a whirl too, but at about a third of his speed – if even that!
Call of the wild – and tame
All along, we saw wildlife included many kinds of birds and a number of seals. And tame life too: the inevitably startled-looking sheep along the shore.
We were over halfway when all those warnings about rapid changes in the weather and preparedness proved their worth. The previously decent skies with even some occasional sunshine darkened. Clouds started scudding about fast, the winds picked up, the water surface started rippling. And then, suddenly, heavy rain lashed down from the almost purple skies!
Adventure is best enjoyed when you’re well prepared, like we were today, and I couldn’t help myself, I just started laughing! This generated some puzzled and worried looks from the gang, but I assured them I was fine, feeling like a Prince, having an absolute ball (and what better clip to put here than that magical 2016 live concert: Prince at Super Bowl XLI halftime: in the rain! Song starts at about 5 minutes in…). I could have been sitting in a warm and dry office somewhere, yikes. But here I was, in faraway Shetland in November, out on the sea, with good equipment and great people!
As quickly as it started, the rain stopped, the winds died down, and a bleak sun peaked around the corner of a fading cloud. But also fading: daylight. Remember Shetland is far north and November days are short here. Luckily – or rather, expertly planned by Seakayak Shetland – we were approaching Scalloway and could see the lights of the town. And: there was Wendy with the truck and trailer!
Paddle down and saddle up
Getting out of the kayaks, it was time to strip off our borrowed gear, pay the fee, help load the boats and say goodbye to Angus, Gerald, Wendy and the Germans. I hopped in my little Kia rental car and headed home to Lerwick, my “base camp” for the week.
Lifting your spirits
Today was a splendid adventure, all the more awesome as I really hadn’t dared expecting it in November. Shetland is full of adventure opportunities, but if you like kayaking, Seakayak Shetland will float your boat!
My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that the company does not necessarily share my opinions and views. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine (except where credited as noted), as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
*Angus: Photography by Angus Nicol, Seakayak Shetland, Owner
* Gerald: Photography by Gerald Urquhart, Seakayak Shetland, Associate
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